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December 15, 2005     543 Words

Feeding Tubes: What Does the Catholic Church Teach?

CINCINNATI—On March 31, 2005, Terri Schiavo died after her feeding tube was removed, ending a three-month legal and political firestorm over how she should be treated. A victim of brain injury following a cardiac arrest, she was bedridden in a nursing home for 15 years, unable to communicate or eat. Schiavo’s husband and parents fought each other for years over whether her condition had been properly diagnosed, whether she had hope of recovery and whether she would have wanted to be kept alive this way, using a feeding tube.

What does the Catholic Church teach about feeding tubes and their use in sustaining life? That controversial question is the topic of St. Anthony Messenger’s January cover story, entitled, “Are Feeding Tubes Morally Obligatory?” Author Daniel P. Sulmasy, O.F.M, M.D., Ph.D.—a staff member at St. Vincent’s Hospital-Manhattan and New York Medical College—delves into this contentious subject, analyzing it from both religious and scientific angles. After December 14, the article will be posted at: AmericanCatholic.org.

Terri Schiavo’s case garnered worldwide attention. During the last days of her life and even after she died, many concerned Catholics continued to ask: Are feeding tubes mandatory? Should they be used or shouldn’t they? What is the Church’s position on this topic?

“The Church has always taught that suicide and euthanasia are morally wrong. However, the Church has never required that a person do everything medically possible to prolong life,” Brother Daniel P. Sulmasy says. “In medical ethics, ‘extraordinary’ care indicates optional care—interventions that go beyond what the faithful can be required to do in order to be good stewards of their bodies. This has been judged to be the case if the intervention is too expensive, not likely to work, is associated with great suffering or might save the patient’s life at too great a psychological, spiritual or interpersonal cost.”

On March 20, 2004, the late Pope John Paul II addressed participants at a four-day conference on the issue of artificial hydration and nutrition in patients suffering from a “persistent vegetative state.” He said, “The intrinsic value and the personal dignity of every human being does not change, no matter what the concrete situation of his life.”

For many families, the decision to remove feeding tubes from loved ones is often devastating. “We naturally associate providing food and water with what it means to care,” Sulmasy says. “But there is a difference between deciding not to use a feeding tube in a reversible condition and deciding to not place a feeding tube in someone at the very end stages of a progressive and fatal disease.”

For those facing this thorny issue, Sulmasy clearly breaks down the Church’s official stance on whether feedings tubes are required. But for those who must make that choice, the decision to remove a feeding tube is no less difficult.

“As Christians, we consider human life a precious gift,” he says. “But we always recognize, humbly, that the human body is finite and we look forward to the gift of eternal life promised by our Savior.”

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